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The Secret to Achieving Goals: Constraint

Happy 2021 from Start with Small Career Counselling and Coaching

Much of what I was taught early on in my profession as a Career Counsellor + Coach had to do with how to teach others to create and achieve goals. After all, this is why people hire me—to help them identify and reach their career and business goals.

It’s the time of year when you might be reflecting on what you want and what matters to you. Maybe you’re looking at your life and career and thinking it’s time to come up with a goal or two.

I’ve achieved what I’d consider to be some pretty big goals in my career and life. There’s a concept I believe is central to my success and I’d like to share this concept with you in case you find it helpful.

It’s the concept of constraint. This has been a game changer for me personally and professionally and something I teach my clients. When it comes to managing my mind around things like uncertainty, overwhelm, confusion and decision-making, this has been huge. It has been how I’ve been able to shut out extraneous noise, keep things simple, refine, and ultimately grow.

It’s what lead to some pretty serious growth in my private practice even when it felt like my mind was all over the place. When it felt like I had so many ideas swirling around and believed I’d never be able to just pick one, I used constraint. Constraint actually connects to the name of my counselling practice. I started small and have been growing exponentially since. I still have lots of ideas, things I’d like to add on to my business (and I will!) but exercising constraint has allowed me to create what feels like lots of time, space, and freedom in my life while still hitting some pretty big goals and continuing to level up in all sorts of ways. I’d like to share this with you so you can use constraint in your own life to do the same if it’s something you’re seeking.

What is constraint?

Constraint means reducing the number of options available. It’s about limiting decisions and focusing. It’s super simple in concept but often hard to put into practice. To be very clear, this isn’t about deprivation. I don’t believe in that one bit. I want you to have everything and I believe you can, just NOT all at once. My belief is that deprivation—severe restriction results in rebellion. We aren’t trying to turn you into a rebel. Nothing good comes out of that usually. Constraint isn’t about giving up something you want and then feeling terrible about it, it’s about reducing the number of choices you have, which is different. Let’s not get these things twisted. Constraint means deciding on purpose, in advance, the choices you have and then sticking to those choices. It removes unnecessary drains on time, energy, and other resources.

I’m going to talk about constraint in somewhat general terms this week in case it’s helpful for your goal setting. I’ll be speaking more specifically about constraint in terms of career change next week.

A key element necessary to the use of constraint in goal setting is the understanding that we have agency and choice in our decisions. Let this sink in. Often, we carry out our days believing that we are entirely at the effect of our circumstances. We truly believe we don’t have options. We think we’re stuck. This belief will keep us that way. When we believe we don’t have a choice, when we feel deprived or put upon, we rebel eventually. ALWAYS. It might be in small, insidious ways that are hard to spot but look closely and they’ll be there.

So, central to constraint is the understanding that we always have options—even if we’re not thrilled with the choices we have in some cases, it’s important to deliberately pick one and OWN it. There is power in consciously taking responsibility for our own lives. Here’s a tiny example to illustrate: I don’t LOVE cleaning dishes. I could choose to think that I “don’t want to wash them” or that “I don’t have a choice but to wash them”. I don’t choose either of those option. I have others that serve me much better. Off the top of my head I can think of a few alternatives to cleaning my dishes. I could decide to just let them pile up, I could switch to disposable dishes, I could ask someone else to do them, I could even decide to throw them away. So, as with most things, we DO have choice, we DO have agency. I like to remember that I’m allowed to make the choice AND I choose to clean my dishes. So, I actually DO want to clean them. I don't want to throw them away or use disposable for environmental reasons, I do sometimes delegate this task, and I don't want to let them pile up because I just think that's gross. I like all of my reasons. Does that magically make me love doing dishes? No but there is freedom that I've made the choice to do them based on reasons I chose and that I like. I also like knowing that if I really wanted to, I could always make another choice. I am NOT restricted to only cleaning the dishes. I am allowed to change my mind any time I want to.

Constraint is about allowing, not restricting.

A big part of constraint is about choosing for yourself what you’re going to do, but choosing ahead of time. What we often do is put off making decisions. We avoid making decisions—which is actually a decision, even when we don’t recognize it as so. I always advocate for making more decisions, not less. I would like you to consider the practice of operating from allowance and taking agency for your decisions as opposed to telling yourself you have no choice or in some cases that there isn’t enough of this or there’s too much of that, or that you can’t do something or that you “shouldn’t” do something. This is nonsense. It doesn’t serve you. Don’t say these things. When you do, you will rebel. I promise you this. Even if you don’t notice.

Always exercise constraint from the perspective of allowing.

From a place of taking ownership of your decisions and choices, constraint can be helpful. If you can’t cover off these first steps, constraint can easily become a way to restrict and I don’t want that for you.

Constraint involves that you use the evolved part of your brain, the part of the brain you want all of your decisions to be made from—your prefrontal cortex. This is the part capable of rational thought—not the part that reacts and indulges all the urges. Use this rational part of your brain to make decisions—decide on a goal and then decide things about it and plan for it ahead of time.

When you leave all of your decisions until the second you need to make them, you waste way too much mental energy worrying about them or agonizing about what to do. It’s painful and unnecessary and often leads to simply reacting to urges. Going back to my cleaning the dishes example, my brain doesn't really ever kick up a fuss about that anymore. I've thought the thought that I want to do the dishes so many times now that I just do them right away. It's automatic. It's the same way I just brush and floss my teeth. There is no energy wasted about having to choose between brushing or not brushing or cleaning the dishes or not. It's already been decided that those are things I just do. They're just part of who I am at this person. I'm a person who brushes, flosses, and cleans her dishes. I know it might seem like a little, silly thing but it's absolutely not. This is why you need to decide things about your goal long before you actually need to. This saves a lot of energy. You’ve heard of decision fatigue, well it’s a very real thing. Of course, your brain will freak out here. It’s probably not going to want to trust the decision you previously made when the time comes. Brains will do what they do. It’s okay, nothing has gone wrong. You’ve made the decision from the best possible place, ahead of time. You decided on a result you want, you set a goal and now it's time to act on it. You didn’t make the decision in the heat of passion or fear. Well done you. This is an important part of how to make a high quality decision.

Constraint is important for the same reason you make a grocery list and don’t just show up at the store every time you’re hungry. You know better than to make decisions from that starving place. You know if you don’t write out a list, think about upcoming meals and ingredients ahead of time, you’re going to be all over the place. It's going to take way more time and energy to figure it out on the fly. You make a plan by using your prefrontal cortex to decide what you want to eat ahead of time. You’ve probably done this hundreds of time. You might even write out your list according to where things are in the store—what’s the best order, what’s on sale etc. Now more than ever you want to get in and out of Fortinos or Food Basics or wherever. So you make a complete list, then when you get to the store, you just have to execute. You don’t have to make any decisions, you just just focus on avoiding people, keeping your mask over your nose and putting the stuff in the cart. You separate the planning from the execution so you don’t arrive home and unpack your groceries to be faced with only Oreos and diet coke. No toilet paper, pet food, or dish soap to be found.

Fun fact: Planning and execution are handled by different parts of your brain. So, if you’ve been trying to do both at the same time and not getting anywhere, that’s why. You’re just getting confused and overwhelmed and wasting time suffering.

Remember a time when you set a goal. You decided that you were going to eat more fruits and vegetables maybe. When meals came around, you didn’t feel like eating anything even closely resembling either, right? If you have set this goal from a place of restriction, you’ll find yourself negotiating, something like this: “Ugh, I have to eat this wilted old asparagus, gross. Oh, tomorrow I’ll eat fruits and vegetables instead, pass the diet coke and Oreos.” So, we think we made a decision ahead of time but this is a decision made from restriction, NOT allowance. You’ll know this because you’ll start rebelling, you’ll start negotiating. And if you aren’t onto yourself, constraint can turn into restriction and rebellion. If you aren’t choosing your constraints ahead of time with full allowance and taking full agency and ownership, you’ll bump up against this eventually. This is why you need to look at your reasons for doing things. Look at them and decide if you like them. If you do then decide on what you will do from a place of knowing you DO have choice. You’ve made a choice to limit yourself for reasons that you chose and for reasons that you like.

A word about what constitutes a “good” reason. Constraint is not about doing something so that you’ll become a “better” person. You’re already as better as you’ll ever be. Remember? You fulfilled your purpose the minute you were born. You are 100% worthy because you’re alive, your achievements will not make you more so. Subsisting only on Oreos and diet coke doesn’t make you less worthy. Eating wilted asparagus doesn’t make you morally superior or better or more worthy. This isn’t about that. It’s not about that at all.

Constraint is not yet another tool to use against yourself. It’s not another way to set yourself up to fail. It’s not a sneaky way to limit yourself so that you’ll finally be able to feel okay with yourself. Rather, constraint is about giving yourself a chance. It’s about learning to still speak kindly to yourself when you screw up in epic proportions. It’s about loving yourself along the way so you can enjoy the journey but also move along to the part where things start to feel a little easier-more automatic--you see some progress and it's fun and you also get to blow your own damn mind. Because that CAN be fun. I want that for you. Do it because you want it. Because it’ll be fun to see what you’re capable of. What you're made of. Not because you’ll be better or love yourself then. You’re already better. Love yourself now. Do it because you’re ready for an adventure. You can feel okay about yourself now, you don’t require achievement for that. This is not about earning permission to love yourself. Love yourself no matter what. This is about the gravy.

Here’s my example: I wanted to start a regular exercise routine. So, I couldn’t just be like “okay, I’ll just try to exercise here and there”. That’s not a decision. It’s just a vague idea. Instead, I came up with an actual plan, using constraint, I decided I wasn’t going to start doing a bunch of different things. I picked one. I picked one thing. I chose to start using my treadmill for more than just hanging stuff off of. I figured out what I was going to do and when ahead of time. I figured everything out, I made the decision from a place of allowing with my prefrontal cortex, then I executed it. I anticipated what my brain would do. I anticipate what I’d need to think ahead of time to deal with that. I planned out what I’d say to myself when I screwed it up. Not from restriction. From allowance.

Here’s the thing: I made my decision from full allowance and ownership, I worked on my thoughts and reasons why I wanted this, I exercised constraint, I used my prefrontal cortex, and I executed.

My brain STILL freaked out.

If you’re what some might call a Type A sort, you’re all about making the plans, right? Plans aren’t a problem. What the problem then can become is that the plans are very ambitious and maybe even perfectionistic. You haven't exercised in maybe a year but come Monday, by golly you're going to lift all the weights and exercise all your parts, bits and pieces, to within an inch of their lives. Well, aside from being in so much pain the next day to the point of not being able to get yourself up off the toilet (aherm, no I am definitely NOT speaking from experience here), you're not really giving yourself a chance to succeed here. You won't continue and then you'll feel terrible. The reason is that your goal is very closely tied up to your sense of worthiness. Remember what I said earlier? The part about you already being worthy? So this is where this can come up. What also can come up is what I was faced with above. My brain freaked out. Now I could have made this mean something was wrong. This is what most people do. Their brain freaks out and they take this as a reason for them to stop. They take this as a good reason to not do what they said they’d do.

You don’t have to do that.

Instead, you can decide to anticipate that this will happen and not let yourself be surprised by it. Expect that even if you set yourself up for success with a manageable goal, your brain will throw a tantrum thinking it's "not enough". If you’re prepared for this ahead of time you don’t have to let it be the reason you stop. The way I didn’t let my brain freaking out stop me. I set a manageable goal and it still told me things like “Oh, this is hard”, “This is uncomfortable”, “Ew, I’m getting sweaty”, “Maybe I should stop and lie down instead”, or “I don’t feel like it”.

None of this is surprising. Let’s just stop pretending to be surprised by all the things we can totally predict. This is key to constraint. Not taking the brain freaking out seriously, knowing that it will freak out and deciding, ahead of time that it doesn’t mean something’s gone terribly wrong. That it’s okay to keep going. Many of our thoughts are complete nonsense. We need to be specific and remind ourselves that we knew this would happen otherwise it’s as good as saying something as useless as “well, if I still feel like doing it 100% and my brain doesn’t give me any trouble, I’ll probably do it”. Then, you totally won’t do it. It’s classic self sabotage.

You always get to decide in the moment if you don’t want to go through with it. I don’t ever have to exercise if I don’t want to. I can lie on my couch and love the heck out of myself. Exercise doesn’t make me morally better or worse. If, in the moment you don’t want to do what you committed to, let yourself not. When this happens, I've pre-decided not to beat myself up about it BUT what I've started to do here is to also not reward myself either. If I don't take action on my goal, I don't let myself use that same time to scroll on my phone or zone out in front of TV instead. So what I mean here is that if I've committed time intentionally to do something and my brain is telling me I don't want to follow through, I've decided ahead of time what I'll make this mean. I tell myself that I understand and that I respect my choice. I'm deliberate about letting myself not do the thing I don’t want to do but I OWN it. I don't let myself believe the reason is that the thing is too hard or that I can’t. Then I spend that time looking at my thoughts. I look at the real reason I'm avoiding the thing--I don't numb out on my phone or in front of the television. I look at what I'm telling myself, what I'm making my thoughts mean and what I'm actually believing. I evaluate what worked, what didn’t and what I'll do differently next time. I refuse to sell myself short and make this about how I either did the thing or didn’t do the thing because it's not about that. I present myself with a third option knowing that there are also probably a hundred others. I get to work on figuring out what’s getting in my way (spoiler alert: It’s ME).

As I mentioned earlier, constraint has been key to my success in private practice. I’ve created constraint in my business. There is only one way to work with me—I have only one offer. I haven’t created 37 different options that I have to sell. My brain threw an epic fit over that one. It’s okay though because I anticipated that and decided what I’d do about that waaay ahead of time.

I see so many of my clients, especially those who are starting businesses not exercise constraint. They try to implement all of their ideas at once, trying to please everybody and address everything. It gets complicated and confusing. So they just do nothing instead.

One of the reasons why my business grew so fast I think is that I hung on. I picked one thing. You can only work with me one-on-one. I may offer group options at some point but only because now my business and my brain is at a point where I can sustain that. Having one simple offer—even when people will call me up and ask me for something else saves me from having to agonize about how to respond. I have decided ahead of time what I can deliver and get amazing results for people with. It’s eliminated the need for me to have to even entertain other things. There’s no negotiation or second guessing. It’s either a yes or it’s a no. Simple.

So fewer decisions for my clients, fewer decisions for me. It makes my business easy. I can set revenue goals easily. This is constraint. I do this with social media also. I focus on Instagram only. I don’t spend all of my time on Pinterest and Snapchat and Twitter and Facebook and TikTok and YouTube. I constrain. It saves me an enormous amount of energy and resources. I can keep my focus crystal clear.

When I first started out, I didn't even have a website. I didn't use any social media. I relied on good old fashioned word of mouth which still works very well for me today. Of course now I also send out a weekly Sunday Night Letter that has grown into an audience into the many thousands. This has created a steady flow of clients for me--second only to referrals I get from previous clients and others, and third to people who find me on Google. But I added those things in slowly, as I grew. Now I re-purpose this letter into Instagram posts and blogs. This is constraint. It frees up my time so I can focus on getting results with the clients I serve.

I had to manage my brain freaking out when I picked something and went all in on it. My brain wanted to complicate everything. It wanted to change what was working and rush too quickly into changing things that weren't. I had to work at constraining. What my brain wanted me to do was ALL THE THINGS. It told me I would be missing out if I made a choice. It told me that I was making a mistake and needed to think more and research more and not just get to work and focus. I had to DECIDE to constrain. I had to decide to decide.

I had to pick one thing and go ALL IN. Even when it felt uncomfortable. Even when it meant saying no to some things.

Constraint doesn’t mean I don’t have other things on low burners in the background. It just means that mentally, I know what my main things are right now. It allows me to perfect and refine and then add more good things to my current pile of good things.

So, if you’re planning on setting a goal for 2021, use constraint. This is the key to achieving any goal—personally or professionally. Pick one thing. Make it as simple as can be. Decide ahead of time all the things that will get in your way and try to trip you up. Address them and decide what you'll make them mean ahead of time. And as always, don’t set a goal because you think you aren’t good enough the way you are, or because you think achieving the goal will make you happy. Set a goal so you can experience the growth that will be required of you in trying to achieve it. Whether you do or you don’t, think of who you’ll be on the other side of trying. Choose a goal that inspires you—even if it seems a bit unrealistic. The goal can feel a little impossible just so long as the actions remain simple and focused and manageable. Knowing that your worth doesn’t factor into this equation, answer this: What do you need to believe about yourself, the world, and others to achieve the result you want? What do you need to think? Who would you have to become to create the result you want? Lead with these questions and then get going.

Happy 2021.


P.S.: Ready to get some help with your career or business goals? I often have a full practice and wait list by the end of January, so sign up to work with me soon! It starts with a phone chat. Schedule yours here.

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